Friday, 17 June 2011

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Gena Rowlands breaks my heart in this. It’s a warts and all portrait of Mabel Longhetti (Rowlands) whose mental illness is impacting on her loving husband Nick (Peter Falk) and their three children.

I’m of the opinion that we all sit somewhere along a sliding scale of mental illness. To put it very simply, some of us are able to get by and some of us need a little help. Mabel walks a fine line between the two. Her behaviour gets more and more eccentric to the point where it is impossible for them to live as a ‘normal’ family. (One of the questions raised is, what the hell is ‘normal’?) She is a loving wife and a wonderful mother. The hard thing is that what she brings to these roles (e.g. being fun and entertaining) is inextricably a part of her illness. In one scene she desperately tries not to behave like a crazy person to prevent herself from being committed. The act she puts on isn’t remotely like her, and it’s painful to watch. 

As with so many actor/directors John Cassavetes really knew how to extract performances from his cast. The acting here is ridiculously good. You have to pay attention because there are so many magic moments that are easily missed. It’s likely these are unplanned improvisations with no plans for big close-ups. The camera just roams around. If you flicked channels and came in halfway through you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was a documentary. This is cinema verité proper. The style is raw.

Self-funded by Cassavetes (by means of his acting work in mainstream fare such as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby), he never had anyone threatening his film with scissors. Consequentially, and I hate to admit it, at 155 minutes it is unnecessarily long.  

I should add, Cassavetes is not scared to show the comical side of her condition. There are many very funny moments - all of them involving Mabel's bizarre behaviour. She has some amazing idiosyncrasies and as the camera revolves around her, we - almost as another member of the cast - are encouraged to laugh along with her. Never at her. 

Rumble Fish (1983)

It’s an odd film. I can’t really think of anything quite like it and hey, that is never a bad thing. I first saw this as part of director, Alex Cox’s Moviedrome season on BBC2. It was in a double bill with its companion piece from that same year, The Outsiders - also from an SE Hinton book. While The Outsiders is rich in colour and, conversely, realistic in its feel, Rumble Fish is steely black and white and overtly stylised. It’s a superb double, by the way (probably best with The Outsiders first) most obviously due to the street gang subject matter but it’s also a real Venn diagram of talent involved: Hinton, Coppola, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Tom Waits.

It is set in a not-too-distant urban future. We are told “the gangs aren’t around” any longer although the threat of violence is still very much in the air. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a young buck always looking for a drink/fight/screw (in no particular) order and is the younger brother of legendary renegade, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Rusty James is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Big brother got the brains and is also quite the philosopher. Motorcycle Boy is colour blind and experiences intermittent deafness. He lives in a bubble but, contradictorily, experiences “acute perception” of the world. Dennis Hopper is perfect as their boozehound father.

It’s all cloaked in hallucinatory weirdness. Stewart Copeland’s debut score provides a perfect, otherworldly tone. First The Police, then this, then The Equalizer theme tune… is there no limit to this man’s talent? The soundtrack is pretty much wall-to-wall sound – something I’m not usually fond of but here, God bless you Mr Coppola, it works a treat.

You might be interested to know that this formed part of the inspiration – in terms of shooting gangs – for Joe Cornish when making Attack the Block. It’s very apparent when you watch Rumble Fish. Said shots of the gangs strutting their stuff are insanely cool and very beautiful.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Little White Lies

A change of tack here for writer/director Guillame Canet who has scored one of the biggest hits in French history with this dramedy. Once more Canet hires gifted actors, Francois Cluzet and Gilles Loulleche from his previous film, the effective thriller Tell No One. Marion Cotillard is also part of a convincing ensemble cast. 

Max (Cluzet), a successful Parisian hotelier is significantly older than the gang of thirty-somethings he has invited to his holiday home. He is also comically uptight. He and his guests eat, drink, make merry, (and sometimes miserable) on the very attractive southwest coast. All the while a good friend of theirs languishes in hospital. While amusing and vaguely charming, the group are self-absorbed and have the scruples of hyenas.

The comedy is broad but undeniably funny, and the drama is quite touching. The influence of Hollywood is fairly obvious. Sad really because it would have been so much better were it a little more ‘French’. The use of music laid over comedy montages, for example, is heavy-handed. Generally, it is skilfully directed and there is one moment in particular that is pure bravura filmmaking.

There are few lessons learned by the characters so I’m not exactly sure what the film is saying. Perhaps simply, ‘humans aren’t perfect so don’t expect us to be’. Not the best message for personal growth but hey, it’s one that can make us feel better about ourselves. Well, at least all of those French people that went to see it.

Do find myself saying this a lot these days, but the film is overlong. Might be worth noting that The Big Chill, similar in subject and a film held dear to this reviewer, told a superior story in 49 minutes less (49 minutes!) than the running time of Little White Lies.   

Saturday, 11 June 2011

City Island

This is one of those indie flicks where some slightly messed-up stuff goes on but to you the viewer: a) it is funny b) not that offensive and c) the behaviour is easily forgivable. Cinematically, I feel it’s a kind of European sensibility. Think Gerard Depardieu and his buddy throwing that girl into the river in Les Valseuses, unashamedly played for laughs (and boy, was it funny.) 

Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison officer with secrets, one of which is that he’s been taking acting lessons. He’s not the only one hiding something - his son has an unsavoury penchant for obese women and his daughter is a stripper. All the secrets are revealed with darkly comic results. The titular City Island is a quirky area in The Bronx and a sort of well kept secret. It’s a pretty community noted for its boating and seafood restaurants but still very much a part of New York City.

The film is totally watchable if a little forgettable. Writer and director Raymond de Felitta shows promise, capturing real pathos (with the blue collar Vince trying to tap his potential) and there are many comic moments. Garcia is funny, as is Julianna Margulies (she of ER fame) who we don’t often see in feature films. Now, why is that? Oh yeah, it’s because she’s just turned 45. C’mon Hollywood, can we please start giving some better roles to women who are old enough to remember at least the eighties? It’s criminal to ignore such talent and the likes of Margulies are a damn sight more interesting and sexy than a lot of younger women currently seen on our screens. 

Thursday, 9 June 2011


When did this start to happen? When did it become acceptable to pay to see documentaries? (I think Michael Moore may have something to do with it). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Senna. It just belongs on BBC2 at 9pm on a Tuesday. It is nothing of an event and certainly not a reason to leave your home for. If you pay cinema admission for this film you are being conned. It is an ugly piece of crap made up from cruddy video footage that should not be forced upon anyone on a large screen. Don’t get me wrong, I love documentary and more specifically, the feature length documentary format. But not all documentaries belong in cinemas.

The film is an exercise in editing from director Asif Kapadian who didn’t shoot anything but simply pieced together archive clips. Kapadia eschews talking heads, instead laying audio interviews over the footage. The style does work and he tells the story coherently. Be that as it may, it’s a wearisome tale. Ayrton Senna was a talented driver from Brazil who, for much of his career, engaged in a rivalry with Alan Prost. Prost was a smarmy Frenchman who I think we – the audience - are supposed to want to crash and die. Senna himself was tragically killed in a race, aged 34. He also seems to have been an all-round decent guy. It is a very attractive portrait of a man who lived fast, died young and left a good-looking corpse.

One of the problems is that as with so many “sports personalities” (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) the man was a charisma vacuum. The film attempts to accord him iconic status but I doubt Mohammed Ali will be losing any sleep. The postscript implies a kind of martyrdom which simply doesn’t wash with this reviewer. The guy was a walking billboard. (I should have mentioned Senna is brought to you by Shell, Marlboro, Rothmans and JPS to mention just a few of the swathes of companies you are visually assaulted by.) It’s pitiful to see grown men plastered in so much advertising. They have less integrity than Julius Francis who – in anticipation of being knocked out by Tyson - sold advertising space on the soles of his feet. At least Francis – unlike Senna et al - spent some of the time not looking like a complete whore.